The Politics    Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Strange bedfellows

By Nick Feik

Strange bedfellows
The battlelines are blurring as Melbourne’s lockdown protests heat up

Helicopters have been hovering over Melbourne’s CBD, riot police have been out in force and protest lines have been drawn again today, with even more protesters (almost all men) on the street than yesterday. But precisely who’s on whose side has become terribly jumbled in the past 24 hours. Is this a protest against mandatory vaccination for construction workers, or state overreach on construction sites, or the temporary closing of the construction industry? It’s a bit of each. Was it a protest by unionists? Yes and no. Was it infiltrated, as Bill Shorten put it, by a “network of hard-right man-baby Nazis”? Yes it was. You’re entitled to feel confused.

On Friday, John Setka, Victorian head of the CFMEU, was railing against the state government’s new COVID-19 restrictions for the construction sector, labelling the decision to close tea rooms “appalling”, given it was made without consulting the CFMEU.

Yesterday, Setka himself was being pelted with bottles and crates by a group of protesters furious about a Victorian government mandate requiring all construction workers to have had at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose by September 23.

In response to the protest, as well as widespread breaches of COVID-19 protocols on worksites, the majority of the state’s construction industry was shut down for two weeks. The Andrews government was not messing around last night, sending a clear signal to the union bosses that this degree of dissent is dangerous and unacceptable, and they need to bring their members into line. Which union leaders promptly tried to: Sally McManus, secretary of the ACTU, was on ABC 7.30 last night backing the government’s position on the need for people to get vaccinated, and condemning the opportunist anti-vaxxer troublemakers who joined the union protesters – or even planned it. This morning, Setka said he believed only a small number of yesterday’s protesters were actually union members.

“There was some union members there but in the whole scheme of things, they weren’t the majority there,” he said. He blamed the insurgent “drunken fascist un-Australian morons” for the fact that “construction workers will be sitting at home and not getting paid for the next 2 weeks”. If only it were so simple.

There are significant sections of the population – yes, including union members, but many more besides – who are tired of the lockdowns. There are others who don’t like untrammelled, unquestioned state government control of daily life. Each of these segments include hard-right provocateurs as well as ordinary citizens. Then there are the anti-vaxxers (often the same people, but not always), ranging from the opportunist self-promoters such as Clive Palmer and Craig Kelly, to lifestyle influencers and out-and-out Nazis, as well as some regular concerned citizens.

To give a sense of the confusions inherent in today’s protest action, one list of demands posted on Telegram included the immediate end of vaccine and mask mandates, the end of all lockdowns, the immediate resignation of Premier Dan Andrews, and “mass distribution of ivermectin, vitamins C and D and zinc”. The chaotic energy of such proclamations would be amusing if it wasn’t so alarming, and if there weren’t hundreds of riot police on the street as I write.

There are more than 300,000 construction workers in Victoria, and most are now unable to work because a few hundred were angry enough to team up with whoever was available to create a stink. Little wonder that the nurses’ federation has issued a statement telling the protesters to pull their heads in, and put the health and welfare of the community first.

The difficulty for any government amid such steadily rising passions is finding a balance between the rights of a noisy minority to be heard, and the right of the vast majority (and the highly vulnerable) to work safely and live a healthy life – and the government must avoid pushing the people with real grievances into the arms of extremists. In current circumstances, nuanced messages are almost impossible to convey, and gentle persuasion (of those who need persuading to do something for the greater good) is a lost art.

As usual, there’s no federal leadership in sight. Morrison has headed overseas, leaving the C-team in charge. He could issue a statement if he wanted, but as is too often the case when it comes to difficult decisions about COVID-19, he has nothing to offer. And far be it from him to get in the way of anything that promises to cause splits in the union movement. (Attorney-General and Industrial Relations Minister Michaelia Cash has already tried to exploit and exacerbate the troubles by hanging them around federal Labor’s neck.)

As Australia gets closer to opening up, questions about vaccine mandates and lockdowns are going to become even more heated. It may be that vaccination rates slow again as we get closer to 80 per cent, mainly due to anti-vax sentiment. And it may be that we need to aim for a vaccination rate of 90 per cent of people aged five years and older to avoid regular lockdowns, as Professor Tony Blakely suggested today.

But rather than make any strong proclamations or produce any legislation in favour of vaccine mandates, it looks like Morrison prefers to quietly usher the anti-vax crowd into the Coalition tent, via the preference votes of the likes of Clive Palmer and Pauline Hanson, as well as fascist sympathisers and even the odd unionist.

Protesters marched to the top of the West Gate Bridge this afternoon, where they started a singalong to Daryl Braithwaite’s “Horses”. This doesn’t sound like typical behaviour for unionists; more like that of a group of idiots on ivermectin.

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Today we learnt a little more about the five-time Olympic shooter and former coalminer Daniel Repacholi, Anthony Albanese’s “captain’s pick” to run for Labor (replacing Joel Fitzgibbon) in the seat of Hunter. Repacholi’s 2016 Facebook post, deleted when he became a candidate, resurfaced today.

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The list

“On Tuesday, August 4 at 6.07 pm, while he is working on his terrace, ‘the floor begins to move with incredible violence, accompanied by a sort of hideous roar … I think it’s obviously an earthquake.’ It lasts five seconds. Then Beirut is a devastation. In terse reportage, Majdalani relays the experience: alive, shocked, ferrying people to the hospital, checking, dreading, listening to stories, functioning.”

“Not only will we see more extreme natural disasters more often, the royal commission said, but the nature of these events will become more complex and harder to predict, with different types of disasters occurring at the same time.”

“We desperately need a government-led overarching EV transition strategy that focuses on both the demand and supply side of the issue, including the need to develop essential infrastructure. The Morrison government has made it clear that it will not offer any assistance to purchase an EV. Compare this with the United States, Germany, France, Italy, Britain and Japan, which each have incentives worth about $10,000 for EV purchases.” 

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.


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